The Camogie Association was looking to build on a record All-Ireland final attendance and bed in widely welcomed trial playing rules when the pandemic struck. Brendan O’Brien spoke to Ard Stiúrthóir Sinéad McNulty as the sport adapts and prepares for its return to play.

What was the moment you realised that this was a challenge on an entirely different scale?

It was in March. I was in the Croke Park Hotel and about to meet Helen O’Rourke from LGFA and have a chat when we got a call that the government had announced the schools were closing. So putting in a full suspension of on-field activity from the 12th of March onwards was the moment, really.

Has anything in your past professional experience been a help in dealing with this?

I was working in the public sector when the Employee Control Framework [no renewal of contracts, no new posts] came in during the last crisis post-Celtic Tiger. At that point we had major changes in how we employ staff in the public sector and having to deal with that and restructure and look at budgets and operational plans and keeping facilities open. That is probably the closest I have been to something like this but it is not nearly on the same level.

Both are highly uncertain, changing landscapes. Does that help?

The difference with this is that you didn’t know what was coming day to day. In the financial crisis there was somebody somewhere who could plan the way out of it, or who had been in a financial crisis before. We are all going through a global pandemic for the first time and at the same time together, more or less.

There was no guide book or road map. We are already on our third iteration of the road map for Gaelic games. People look to you for answers to the questions they have and it is really challenging when you don’t have those answers and a lot of the same questions.

Where was the Camogie Association at when Covid-19 struck?

We were in a very exciting place. 2019 was a fantastic year for us. We had a record attendance at our All-Ireland finals. We had growth in membership, we had new clubs springing up and funding from Sport Ireland for our Mná programme. And we had record viewership between streaming and, most importantly, on TV. The Camogie final was the most watched women’s sports event of 2019 on TV. That’s where we were coming from.

We had a full team of staff for 2020 after having had a couple of vacancies in the last few years. We were launching our new National Development Plan in April at Congress and bringing sponsors on board across all of our competitions. So it was going to be a really exciting year.

We will still look back at the end of the year at things we have achieved, albeit that they are different from what we intended in January. Right now we are excited about people being back on the pitch, a return to some sort of normality.

When will the National Development Plan be launched and is it altered by the pandemic?

It hasn’t been formally launched. Given the uncertainty we said we would hold off on a formal launch. It’s hard to build up excitement about new sports activities when you’re not allowed to go outside the door.

The pandemic had started when we were finalising the plan itself so we did temper the ambitions for 2020 but it is still a plan for up to 2023 and all of the actions within remain absolutely valid despite Covid, like our move towards the online world which has been helped by Covid. We had 6-700 people taking part in training weeks online some weeks. That’s record levels for us.

How severe do you think the financial losses will be for your organisation and for the sport?

Right now we are looking at it with slightly more optimistic views that we were 6-8 weeks ago. Initially we were looking at a reduction of 80% of our revenue for the year. We have been impacted on grants, on gate receipts. We were really concerned about membership if we would not be in a position to deliver games during the year.

Right now it is looking at about a 40-45% reduction but that is based on the games programme being delivered to the end of the year. So we are reviewing it every week. The temporary wage subsidy scheme has been huge for us and has enabled us to keep all of our staff on board and keep working and engaging with our members. Without that we would be telling a different story today.

The CEO Series with camogie's Sinéad McNulty: 'There have been some tough decisions we have had to take'

What happens if a second wave of Covid-19 materialises and sport is shut down again?

The reality is we don’t know. If you listen to what public health authorities are saying, they have developed a five-stage road map so it really depends on the scale of any second wave. We know what we need to do now and how do it, things like the health questionnaire and online resources.

There is talk of the reproduction rate being at 1 or even over and that is worrying. It would be hugely impactful and people’s confidence has been damaged. We have members through all age groups who have underlying conditions and don’t have a huge amount of confidence about going back.

They would be severely hit if there was a second wave. We have various sets of contingency plans from your best-case to your worst-case. We’ve already seen things that were unheard of, like moving our All-Ireland final into December. Who would have ever thought that?

When will the inter-county fixture list be published?

We plan to do the draw for our championship fixtures next week. The roadmap is very clear that inter-county training cannot recommence until the 14th of September. It’s up to us to ensure that the structure allows some games for everyone.

It’s not what we had planned at the start of the year but we are essentially trying to get nine months of activity into an eight-week programme and that is really challenging for everyone. The positive for a lot of people is a full club programme right up to the All-Ireland final which will take place next March.

There have been some tough decisions we have had to take about particular events and at age grades, and it has been really disappointing for people in those, but we have looked at it from every possible direction and come up with the best programme that we could to give as many games to as many people as possible. It’s not perfect but 2020 has been a really challenging year.

The decision to cancel the All-Ireland minor championship has been heavily criticised. Where is the association with regard to this now?

It was one of the tough decisions that was made and there were a number of factors that went into the decision-making process. We have received an appeal on that decision. That is being considered through the process and procedures so I can’t really talk about that any more at the minute.

Last year’s Galway-Kilkenny final came on the back of widely welcomed rule changes and it was the highest-scoring decider in 32 years. So how frustrating was it that the pandemic shut things down with further rule changes being trialled and the sport gaining momentum?

We had a very good conversation with all the stakeholders in advance of the trial rules. We were very excited. The first couple of weekends went super and then we had four weekends of wet weather warnings and an awful lot of matches cancelled. It was really frustrating not to see the full programme delivered but we look forward to trial rules in future competitions